Balancing the Downswing - Exploring Business Endurance and Crisis Management During COVID-19 Lockdown
As COVID-19 continues its indefinite grip on human life and activity, businesses and markets are witnessing a sharp decline in sales and consumer interest, raising questions how many of them will stay buoyant or even resurrect themselves to achieve desired financial projections this year. Evidently, a vast array of retail firms that are on the frontlines of this backlash will soon witness a divergent shift off the routine to address current consumption patterns in the wake of stiff financial insecurity and logistical restrictions.

Organisations, although seemingly quiet from the outside, are vehemently operating from the backend, enhancing their digital presence through constant employee and customer engagement. As the Movement Restriction Order looks to spill over into the coming weeks and perhaps even months, business leaders all over Malaysia are focusing on how their brands can respond to the crisis by focusing more on enriching human life despite the prevalent gloom and economic status quo.
CnetG Asia, also known as IRC Global Executive Search Partners, hosted their first-ever online panel discussion on March 30th, 2020 to understand how multinationals and retailers are navigating the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown. Themed “What Businesses Need to Know”, the discussion was attended by panellists Tarang Gupta, MD and ED of Dutch Lady Malaysia Industries (FrieslandCampina) and Yong Yoon Li, MD and ED of Royal Selangor International along with 180 attendees from various industries.

In his opening remarks, moderator Raj Kumar Paramanathan, Managing Partner, IRC Global Executive Search Partners/CnetG Asia drew attention to the various sustenance strategies that companies are currently adopting. “Today’s CEOs are facing difficult times as they have to navigate strategies to ensure there’s steady cash flow in order to balance the needs of all their stakeholders, which includes customers and employees. CEOs need to have an evolving strategy on workforce management, supply chain risk, disruption, financial system and customer management even under the cover of uncertainty,” he said.C

Consumer Behaviour & Post Crisis Loyalty...

Although it’s hard to predict customer behaviour, panellists said that crises always led to an evolution in buying patterns. Having been in the luxury gifts business the last 135 years, Royal Selangor wasn’t going to experience changes in the tastes of its customers other than personalization, delivery and quantity of orders, said Yong, the fourth-generation executive director of the heirloom company.

“Irrespective of the account being a corporate or wholesale one, we will see customers buying in lesser volumes than before. But the promising thing is we humans are sociable and no matter what crisis we may face, we are always looking at ways to celebrate life events, whether it’s anniversaries, promotions or even thanking our staff for their hard work. This will continue no matter what situation we are in. Customer loyalty is borne from authenticity and the genuine essence that the brand exudes,” explained Yong.

Dutch Lady, which also boasts of a 150-year Dutch lineage, engages with 18-20 million people in Malaysia every day, according to its MD Tarang Gupta. Tarang believes that in times like these, brands need to switch from being transactional to being transformative. “We’ve taken steps to help outlets that are not our actual contributing partners just to help them out in this dire situation. This is the time we need to help each other out. Consumer needs are very different at this stage and the best we can do is to share information or help out through our channel partners. There’s a saying that selling is the mirror image of buying. This is not a moment to sell but find out how you can help one other. When that happens, it’s always a win-win and loyalty becomes an outcome. However, it’s never the starting point,” he emphasized.
Leader’s Role & Lessons to Learn...

Tarang, who has served over a decade with FrieslandCampina (parent company of Dutch Lady) stressed the importance of applying the ‘curse-cure-care’ strategy when normalcy gets hit. “It’s easy for leaders to play the victim and curse the situation when things go wrong. Instead, finding out what you can do about the situation will do better. Caring for your people is as important as communicating and explaining to them where we are and what we are going to do about it. The cure starts when you look for opportunities. Most of the time, the tone of voice of the leader is extremely important in order to help people find answers to the issue,” he noted. 

As no leader has ever been criticized for saying too much during a crisis, Tarang firmly believes that a leader’s words should equally touch the mind and the heart. “It’s imperative to address why we are doing it, what we are doing about it and how we are going to do it while communicating. Organisations should know why they exist and what their purpose is. Then it’s not difficult to come up with ideas on how to execute them. It’s the time to give your workforce more autonomy, sense of belonging and communicate continuously,” he pointed out.

By far, the COVID-19 crisis is the only one that has gripped the whole world in a state of rigorous lockdown. While challenges have resulted in a loss of lives, change in patterns and reorganization of businesses, both panellists pointed out a few things that would remain as life lessons. “Never underestimate your team, so many of them have stepped up in the face of this crisis. Even as we crib, we need to think of those countries whose situation is far worse than ours. Crisis or not, sometimes, we do need to celebrate the small things in life,” assured Yong.

Tarang, who also echoed Yong’s thoughts, stressed the importance of certain crisis factors by giving an example of the acronym POS, usually used to denote ‘Point of Sale’ in a retail transaction. “P is for the power of the people which you should never undermine. Respect for my staff has grown multifold during this crisis and it has shown me that people can make all the difference. O, for me, is an opportunity because every issue throws up opportunities. S means speed and as I say, ‘speed is my best friend, perfection is my enemy’ during a crisis,” he added. He also recognized the importance for businesses to stay prepared so that they can streamline themselves whenever things go volatile.

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